Lancaster Avenue art installation commands attention

Artists have taken over windows of empty storefronts along Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia. The temporary “avenue of the arts” is a whimsical and much-needed attempt to revitalize the commercial corridor.

“Look! on Lancaster Avenue” features 13 artists commissioned to create site-specific work for the windows of vacant buildings between 34th and 41st streets.

Some, like Russell Mahoney, went beyond windows to overtake the entire building exterior. He and his partner, Emil Crystal, wrapped steel rebar and tensile fabric around the building near 38th and Lancaster.

Mahoney discovered the original brick building is wrapped in a layer of brick. The veneer of clean red brick does nothing but hide the older brick that does the work of supporting the building.

Playing with the idea of stacking layers upon layers, Mahoney bolted a rebar grid to the brick facade and stretched sails of fabric over it.

“Another facade on top of the pseudo-facade,” said Mahoney, inspired by theories of architectural armature. “It can be used to rejuvenate a building in the urban context.”

Lancaster Avenue has more than its share of grand architecture, much of it empty. Across the street from Mahoney’s project stands the once-proud Hamilton Hall, with bay windows, carved moldings, and embedded relief sculpture. Now, all of it is warped and crumbling.

In what seems like equal part hope and mockery, artist Kay Healy wheat-pasted images of domestic furniture and household appliances onto the boarded-up windows and doors of the hall.

Connecting the tabs

Paul Schultz aspires to instill “wonder and delight” with his window installation at 3850 Lancaster Ave. Using thousands of those little plastic tabs used to keep bread bags closed, he arranged them on plastic-glass sheets in a complex grid pattern.

Similar to the video arcade game “Centipede,” or a Scrabble board after a particularly intense game, the multi-colored tabs seem randomly placed but are carefully interconnected.

“As huddles emerge, I’m looking at which ones connect, which ones create flow—the way a city works, for instance,” said Schultz, who teaches architecture at Drexel University. “But you won’t see a city. What you’ll see is connectivity.”

The windows of “Look! on Lancaster Avenue” are one part of a multi-faceted project that will continue for two months. On Friday, opening night will feature dance and music performances along the avenue, and neighborhood art galleries will be showing local work through October. The windows will be up through November.

The project is a collaboration of the University City District, the People’s Emergency Center, homeowners in the area, and the dragon to the south: Drexel University.

“There’s a long history over Drexel’s 100 years of not always being the best neighbor, sometimes being pushy, sometimes less than sensitive,” said Blaise Tobia, who–as both a Drexel art professor and a 20-year Powelton Village resident—acted as liaison between the town and the gown.

Building community relations

“Lately, it’s putting some pressure on the neighborhood because there’s a lot of commercial viability for student housing. So there’s some tension there,” Tobia said.

Drexel’s recently appointed president John Fry has a reputation of successfully working with communities surrounding the University of Pennsylvania, for which he had acted as chief operating officer.

In addition to boosting the visibility of the commercial corridor, Tobia said the “Look! on Lancaster Avenue” project is meant to build community relations between Drexel and the surrounding neighborhood.

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